Being bilingual affords children (and adults) many advantages over the course of their lifetime. Here are seven benefits of raising bilingual kids that have been documented in research and studies.
1. Bilingual children have a better ability to focus and ignore distractions in the environment. That’s because the part of the brain called the executive function, used for planning, judgment, working memory, problem solving and staying focused on what’s relevant is stronger in bilinguals. Every time you speak, both languages are actually active, and the brain has to work to suppress one language while the other is being used. That mechanism employs the executive function of the brain more regularly in bilinguals and therefore it becomes more efficient. This ability starts very young in bilingual babies.
In a 2009 study, researchers taught monolingual and bilingual babies that when they heard a particular sound, a puppet would appear on one side of a screen. But halfway through the study, researchers switched the puppet so it would appear on the opposite side of the screen. In order to win a reward, the infants had to modify the rule they had initially learned. Interestingly, only the bilingual babies were able to successfully learn the new rule and suppress the previously learned rule, which is similar to what the bilingual brain does when one language is being spoken.
2. Bilingual kids can switch from one activity to another faster and are better at multitasking than monolinguals. That’s also thanks to the executive function of the brain, giving bilinguals better cognitive control over information that allows them to switch tasks.
3. Bilinguals have increased mental flexibility and creativity. When you learn there is more than one word for an object, it stretches the mind in new ways and gives children greater mental flexibility and creativity as they have two windows through which they view the world. Russian psychologist Vygotsky stated that “bilingualism frees the mind from the prison of concrete language and phenomena” (Hakuta, 1985).
4. Bilingual children in dual-immersion schools have been shown in one study to score higher on both verbal and math standardized tests conducted in English.
A study conducted in the Miami-Dade school district of Florida on fourth and fifth grade students from 16 elementary schools showed that bilingual students scored significantly higher in both the verbal and math sections of the Florida standardized test than monolinguals. The bilingual students scored 23 to 34 points more than their monolingual peers in total.
5. Bilingual children display stronger logic skills and are better equipped than monolinguals at solving certain mental puzzles.
In a 2004 study that confirmed earlier studies, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares into two bins on their computer, one with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle. Children were first asked to sort by color, placing blue circles in the bin for blue squares and red squares in the bin for red circles. Both groups performed this task equally well. But when the children were asked to sort by shape, not color, the bilinguals performed the task with greater ease than monolinguals. This goes back to the executive function again, and that bilingual children can more easily suppress learning an old rule in favor of a new one.
6. The advantages of being bilingual carry over throughout your life, as bilingualism alters your brain chemistry, which has been linked to staving off the onset of alzheimer’s.
7. Did you know once your child knows two languages, it makes her more apt for learning a third? While this is based on scientific research, I can also anecdotally attest to this assertion as my children have been raised bilingual in Arabic and are now learning Spanish. Both of their Spanish teachers have commented that they are amazed by how quickly my kids have been absorbing the language compared to their peers. It is because they are the only kids in the group who are already bilingual.
On days when your bilingual journey seems particularly challenging, just remember you are giving your children a great gift by raising them bilingually. And keep up the good work!